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You'll Need a Permission Slip for That

Harvard let 'Legally Blonde' use its name but not its campus. It's the opposite at L.A. high schools and colleges.

July 22, 2001|JON MATSUMOTO | Jon Matsumoto is a regular contributor to Calendar

Harvard may be one of the toughest colleges in the country to get into, but when it comes to using the school name in movies--it's easy.

From "The Paper Chase" to "Soul Man" and "With Honors," numerous feature films have been set at Harvard University. The Harvard nameplate once again gets significant screen time in "Legally Blonde," a "Clueless"-like comedy that opened earlier this month. In the film, a ditzy but good-hearted sorority girl (Reese Witherspoon) follows her status-conscious ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School in an attempt to win him back.

But the reason for Harvard's popularity as a film backdrop extends beyond its extremely wide name recognition and reputation for scholastic excellence. Though it doesn't allow commercial film shooting on its campus, Harvard is a rarity among most educational institutions in that it takes a laissez-faire attitude toward the use of its name in films and television shows.

Many universities (as well as high schools, middle schools and elementary schools) are fearful of being linked to films with characters and situations that may reflect negatively on them.

Not Harvard. For school officials there, it's not a matter of taste or image, but of 1st Amendment rights.

"At Harvard it's about the free exchange of ideas and different views," explains Harvard Assistant Provost Sarah Wald. "You have to hope that what Harvard does in the real world is what people will come to view of it. We all recognize that pop culture is very powerful, but we also have faith that the moviegoers will understand that what they're seeing is fictional."

The film "Legally Blonde" is based on a novel of the same name by Amanda Brown. In the book, Witherspoon's Elle Woods character is a sociopolitical jewelry design major at USC. (In the film, she studies fashion merchandising.) Woods moves on to Stanford Law School, where most of the fish-out-of-water tale takes place.

However, both USC and Stanford refused to allow producers to use the college names. The moviemakers asked permission to replace USC with UCLA, and Stanford with either the University of Chicago or Yale University law schools. But there weren't any approvals.

USC and UCLA's refusals to grant permission to use their names is perhaps understandable. The relatively brief scenes involving Woods' undergraduate sorority sisters hardly depict an academic environment brimming with the best and the brightest.

"[The producers of the film] asked if they could set the film at USC, but the images of her as an undergraduate and being in a sorority . . . we felt there was too much stereotyping going on," says Elijah May, campus filming coordinator at USC.

So in the movie, Elle Woods earns her undergraduate degree from a fictional college called CULA.

Patricia Jasper, campus counsel at UCLA, can't recall one time the university has allowed the Westwood campus to be identified as an integral part of a feature fiction film. Jasper has worked at UCLA for nearly 22 years. Any commercial film using the UCLA name must be clearly perceived as in the best interest of the university, she says.

Scripts containing gross conduct, vulgar language, or stereotypes of women, minorities or the disabled are some reasons filmmakers couldn't use the UCLA name in the past, according to Jasper.

Universities such as Stanford feel the administrative purpose of the college should not include reading scripts for content. Stanford essentially has a blanket policy against its name being used in commercial films and filming on campus.

Movie-savvy college officials also know that a script presented during the nascent phases of production can be very different from what ends up on screen.

"We want some assurance that the script that we have reviewed doesn't morph over time into something completely different," Jasper says. "We're mindful that [what's presented to us] at a very early stage of production might not be what's produced [in the end]. That does cause us to be very conservative of what we approve."Ironically, while USC and UCLA refused to lend their names to "Legally Blonde," both campuses were used to film many of the Harvard-based scenes. Conversely, Harvard sees little advantage in allowing commercial filming on its grounds. "We don't allow film shooting on campus because it's a disruption," Wald says.

In addition, as the university with the world's biggest endowment, Harvard isn't enticed by the money that could be earned from on-campus commercial filming.

According to May, USC receives between $8,000 and $10,000 a day for a 14-hour day feature-film shoot. Both UCLA and USC have several staffers whose function is to help coordinate commercial filming on campus. Jack Raab, director of the UCLA events office, says money earned from film and television studios supports student programming and services. May says various departments at USC benefit financially from on-campus filming.

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